Defense a partner in environmental rescues

| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 5:36 p.m.

SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND, Calif. — The sign leaves no doubt about the risk in entering the steep seaside hills that North America's rarest bird calls home: “Danger. Boom. Explosives. Unexploded Ordnance and Laser Range in Use. Keep Out.”

Despite the weekly explosions that rock this Navy-owned island off the Southern California coast, the San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike has been rebounding from the brink of extinction, even on the military's only ship-to-shore bombardment range.

The black, gray and white songbird is among scores of endangered species thriving on military lands during the past decade.

For many, it's a surprising contrast, with troops preparing for war, yet taking precautions to not disturb animals such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and thumb-size Pacific pocket mouse. But military officials downplay the relationship, saying they're concerned primarily with national security.

Defense spending on threatened and endangered species jumped nearly 45 percent over the past decade from about $50 million a year in 2003 to about $73 million in 2012. The military protects roughly 420 federally listed species on more than 28 million acres, according to the Pentagon.

The Defense Department is increasingly partnering with environmental groups to buy critical habitats that can act as buffer zones around bases, including a deal announced in June near the Army's Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state that will restore prairie habitat.

“I've seen entire convoys with dozens of soldiers come to a screeching halt because a desert tortoise was crossing the road,” Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said.

Environmentalists say there has been an attitude shift by the Pentagon, which has a history of seeking exemptions from environmental laws in the name of national security.

“They've come a long way and do deserve credit,” said Mark Delaplaine, of the California Coastal Commission, which has battled the Navy over sonar testing that it believes harms marine mammals.

Generals shudder at being considered tree huggers. But the military's top brass realizes protecting wildlife can, in turn, protect training ranges.

The more wildlife thrives, the fewer the restrictions. If endangered species populations decline further, the military could face being told to move training.

“Our conservation efforts are first and foremost focused on protecting readiness and eliminating the need for restrictions on training,” said John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.

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